X-rays have saved untold lives since their discovery in the late 19th century, but they’ve always come with a risk of excessive radiation. In the future, the need to use X-rays in a common medical procedure may be eliminated thanks to a technology that a team of current and former Virginia Tech students are working to commercialize.

By winning the second annual Union Innovation Challenge, the team, named Illuminate, has received valuable seed money for a catheter that is made of a polymer that glows under florescent light, allowing doctors to verify proper insertion without using X-rays.

As it stands now, doctors typically perform X-rays to ensure correct insertions, and when reinsertions are necessary, so are additional X-rays, said Illuminate member Joe Rittenhouse, who earned his bachelor’s in materials science and engineering in 2015 and is working toward a master’s in that subject.

“X-rays are a dangerous form of radiation when going into the human body,” Rittenhouse said. “Children — specifically babies — are 10 times more radio-sensitive than adults, so there’s a dramatic increase in the likelihood of cancer if you have to X-ray a child.”

Other members of Illuminate were Carly Landers, of Ashburn, Virginia, a rising senior majoring in industrial design; Grace Ma, of Reston, Virginia, who earned her bachelor’s in engineering sciences and mechanics in spring 2016; and Dominik Takanaka, of Reston, Virginia, who earned his bachelor’s in industrial and systems engineering in spring 2016.

The product was invented by chemical engineering Associate Professor Abby Whittington and Raj Shekhar, a principal investigator with the Children’s National Medical Center. Mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Lissett Bickford was also on the design team.  

Whittington said newborns in neonatal units “are very susceptible to infection, and each time they have to be transported to radiology for monitoring it offers an additional risk.”

Held in Roanoke at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institution toward the end of the spring 2016 semester, the Union Innovation Challenge was presented by Pamplin College of Business’ Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, in partnership with Union Bank & Trust and Carilion Clinic.

“Competitions like the Union Innovation Challenge are important,” said Derick Maggard, executive director of the center. “They allow Virginia Tech students to obtain a valuable understanding of how their ideas and hard work can change the world for the better. We are extremely grateful to Union and Carilion Clinic for their vision, as well as their generous support of this event.”

A total of 47 teams entered the challenge, which was a competition for funding for projects related to new health-care, medical, or wellness devices. From the original pool, six finalists were invited to pitch their ideas in Roanoke. Illuminate won $7,500 for its victory, while second-place team BioactiVT, which developed a solar-power pulse oximeter to aid health-care providers in regions where access to electric power may be an issue, earned $2,500.

Students did not need to be business majors to take part in the challenge, just as they do not need to be business majors to get involved with the Apex Systems Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

None of the Illuminate members were business majors, but they met through a class the center runs, Technology Commercialization. Rittenhouse said that class, which teaches students about the challenges and opportunities of commercializing scientific advancements, was beneficial.

“You spend a lot of time in a science lab, where you’re learning what goes into innovation from the science viewpoint, and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship really gives you a chance to see the world through other people’s perspectives. When you connect people, innovation is better.”

Written by Rich Polikoff